Dragons v Leinster
These two teams have won the same amount of games this season, although Leinster also have a draw and three more bonus points to their name which gives them a nice five point buffer. The Dragons have surpassed expectations with some impressive wins at Rodney Parade, but even without their big names Leinster have an impressive team; Zane Kirchner, Lote Tuqiri, Luke Fitzgerald and Jimmy Gopperth all start in the backs.
It will be a tight one, but Leinster should just sneak it. Leinster by 3.
Edinburgh v Zebre
Edinburgh’s upturn in form has seen them climb the table up to tenth, with their opponents slipping below them. The have lost plenty of their international stars, however, so Zebre, whose Italian internationalists remain in the team, will smell blood. Much pressure will be on young Harry Leonard who has played well so far this season, but has always had the experience of Greig Laidlaw inside him. How he fares on his own could go a long way to deciding the outcome of this one, especially against the experience of Leonard and Orquera.
Edinburgh’s missing players makes things less clear-cut, but at home they should still have enough to beat the perennial Italian strugglers. Edinburgh by 7.
Cardiff v Treviso
These two teams both sit on ten points, with two wins apiece. Having already lost at home to Zebre this season, Cardiff will be very wary of the ‘stronger’ Italian province. Their team has been stripped bare by international call-ups, however, and without the youngsters like Rhys Patchell and Cory Allen to call upon anymore, it will not be easy going for them. The back-row of Pretorius, Navidi and Copeland does, at least, look good. Treviso will not be afraid, but their away form is generally shocking.
Cardiff will not lose at home to both Italian provinces in one season. Cardiff by 6.
Connacht v Glasgow
Glasgow, despite losing several of their star names to Scotland duty, still retain a strong squad for the trip to Connacht. Matawalu, Bennett, van de Merwe, Gray and Fusaro have all been in stirling form, while the half-back pairing of Cusiter and Weir brings plenty of experience. They will be angry with a home loss to Munster last weekend, and will desperately search for a win to put that right. Connacht are not affected by international call-ups so name a strong team (Craig Clarke’s name stands out, as always), but are wallowing at the foot of the table.
Glasgow should bounce back from last week’s disappointment with a hard-fought win here. Glasgow by 8.
Scarlets v Ulster
Both teams lose plenty of players to international duty, but both retain plenty of quality within their ranks. Young Jordan Williams is a star in the making on the Scarlets’ wing, while Aaron Shingler and Josh Turnbull bring Welsh experience to the back-row. For Ulster, Ruan Pienaar shifts to fly-half in Paddy Jackson’s absence, with the excellent Paul Marshall coming in at scrum-half. Jared Payne captains the side from fullback.
The Scarlets have been a bit hit and miss this season, while Ulster are showing some simply sublime form. That should continue here. Ulster by 10.
Munster v Ospreys
Thomond Park is the venue for this one, as two teams with genuine title ambitions square off in a game that has been shorn of many an international. It is a shame JJ Hanrahan does not start, as his duel with Matthew Morgan would have seen two of the most promising playmakers in world rugby go head to head. As it is, Ian Keatley gets the nod and although slightly less exciting, is still an excellent player in his own right. The Ospreys will desperately miss the experience and power of their five Lions in the pack, while Munster have similar issues with a Paul O’Connell-shaped hole in the engine room.
The Ospreys look too weak without their Wales contingent to trouble Munster at Thomond. Munster by 12.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images